By Alex Bridges
Shenandoah County won't lose its rural character any time soon. But a proposal to change 92 acres of land north of Strasburg from agriculture to industrial use sparked opposition from residents over fears of increased traffic, loss of farmland and property values.
The 92 acres makes up less than 0.05 percent of the county's 158,427 acres of land zoned for agricultural use, according to county data. Rezoning the land for industry gives the county a large, contiguous tract of property not currently available to attract potential users, says Director of Community Development Brandon Davis.
The Planning Commission recently recommended the Board of Supervisors approve the rare, county-initiated request to rezone part of the farm on Oranda Road. The board will likely take action on the request at its meeting Tuesday.
But District 5 Supervisor Dennis Morris, who represents the Oranda Road area, says he plans to vote against the request. Several dozen people attended a precinct meeting Morris held Tuesday night on the matter.
"I felt like I needed to have [a meeting] down there because of that particular issue," Morris said. "I had a good meeting, a good turnout, good questions were raised, good thought processes throughout the whole thing, so I came away from there getting a good feel for how the community felt about the proposal."
The crowd appeared heavily skewed toward the opposition, Morris said. One person spoke in favor of the proposal. Even before the meeting Morris said he had heard from 14 people who voiced opposition to the request.
"I told them last night at the end of the meeting that basically this is grassroots politics where the constituency gets to talk one-on-one with their elected representative," Morris said. "They came out and over the last 13 days I've been notified by people in the community about the project and I've gotten no positive response. None."
Safety and road issues remain a concern for the neighbors who already deal with traffic from the nearby limestone plant, Morris said.
"Even though [Virginia Department of Transportation] would design the road structure, they feel like it's infringing on their access to and from the Oranda area," Morris said.
Speakers at the meeting also commented about the sinkhole on Oranda Road and the preference to keep the land agricultural.
Morris plans to side with the opponents and vocal majority.
"So, I came out last night in opposition of the rezoning, that I would not support it and at the same time that I would make a motion to turn it down," Morris added. "I've got an obligation to those people out there. They've done their part and I've got to do my part."
More so than just adding acres to the county's stock of available industrial property, Davis advises that the site offers a large amount of contiguous space. A number of sites in the county's industrial parks at Mount Jackson and Strasburg are vacant. Most of those parcels are too small, but some could be connected to make larger spaces.
The county doesn't have a potential user in mind to develop the property. Rather, Davis said the hope is that an industrial firm may find the site more attractive if already zoned for that use.
Arguments for keeping farmland zoned for agriculture conflict with the needs voiced by some residents that the county needs more industry with higher-paying jobs.
Land zoned for agriculture covers the most acres, according to data from the county Department of Community Development. Additionally, land zoned as conservation comes in second and acres in both categories remain far greater than any other zoning type, data show.
Land in agriculture covers 158,427 acres and conservation, including national forest property, spans 144,427 acres. By comparison, the county has 2,349 acres zoned as general industrial and 202 acres under the limited industrial category. Of the county's 314,857 acres in its zoning categories, 2,551 acres, or 0.8 percent, falls under the two industrial uses.
The county also has 654 acres for general business and 77 acres for local business. Residential land covers 8,310 acres, or 2.6 percent, in three types -- low-, medium- and high-density development.
County Planner Patrick Felling pointed out Wednesday that while land may be zoned for agriculture, property may contain homes or other structures. The county does keep track of land use but is in the process of updating the figures as part of a greater project to revise the comprehensive plan.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org